Father knows best
By now it’s widely acknowledged that Japanese director Kore-eda Hirokazu is a master. Although he’s made all sorts of films, from the high-concept fantasy After Life (1998) to the boy-meets-blowup-doll tale Air Doll(2009) and the gentle samurai film Hana (2006), it was with his trio of “family” films Nobody Knows(2004), Still Walking (2008) and I Wish (2011) that people started comparing him to Japanese legend Yasujiro Ozu and accorded him that status.
With his latest film Like Father, Like Son, a Jury Prize winner at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, those plaudits are not looking like they’ll dry up anytime soon. On the surface, this looks to be Kore-eda’s most conventional and commercial film to date.
Its plot, which involves baby-switching, is nothing new. It has Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, Mark Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson and countless TV soap operas as antecedents. It is the stuff that tearjerkers are made of.
It’s in the telling that Kore-eda proves his mettle. We enter directly into the lives of the Nonomiyas: successful architect dad Ryota (Fukuyama Masaharu), dutiful wife and mom Midori (Ono Machiko) and the adorably cute Keita (Keita Ninomiya) who is struggling to live up to his father’s expectations through piano lessons and private school entrance exams.
After about 15 minutes, the film abruptly drops a bomb: Keita was switched at birth. We are then plunged into the lives of another family, the Saikis, who raised the Nonomiyas’ real son Ryusei as their own, and whose real son is Keita.
The plot seems to set us up for another one of those typical Asian family melodramas as the well-off Nonomiyas are contrasted with the lower-middle-class Saikis, who comprise unambitious shopkeeper Yudai (Lily Franky), his wife Yukari (Maki Yoko), eldest son Ryusei (Shogen Whang) and two other children.
The uptight, cold and strict Ryota is contrasted with the warm and playful Yudai as the patriarchs of the two very different families, and it’s clear that the film is setting up Ryota to be the “bad guy” so he can be knocked off his perch and redeemed by the film’s end. Like all the other great humanist directors, Kore-eda is always smart enough to never judge, choosing to again live by Jean Renoir’s famous motto that “everyone has their reasons”.
As bad as Ryota may obviously seem, it is also quite patently clear that Yudai is no angel as well.
The fact that his wife Yukari is clearly the one wearing the pants in the family is a hilarious running joke throughout the film.
The film does not shy away from the family’s likely fate if she fails to do just that, with a husband whose personal philosophy is only half-jokingly professed as “never do today what you can put off until tomorrow”.
This generosity of spirit and wise understanding of human nature is echoed throughout the film, from the most minor characters up to the major ones. Even Ryota’s emotionally distant father and “second mother”, subtly hinted at as the probable reason for Ryota’s cold and strict treatment of his family, receive a fair shake at getting some sort of understanding from the audience.
There are even plenty of laughs as both families are told by the hospital’s doctors and lawyers that the normal solution to this problem is by eventually swapping their children back, hopefully after a successful trial period of gradual sleepovers and exchange, resulting in plenty of rib-tickling and touching fish-out-of-water situations between the boys and their new families.
Ever the understated and efficient storyteller, Kore-eda has crafted a shining example of revealing character through actions and glances, best exemplified by the film’s incredibly moving and beautifully staged climax.
Ultimately, this is a wonderful tearjerker for the whole family, but delivered with a touch of class and none of the cheap theatrics that you might expect from stories of this kind. It’s rare that you can catch a gift this sublime in Malaysian cinemas. Now that you can, what are you waiting for?